During several Autumn visits to Type (the Queen Street West bookshop opposite Trinity Bellwoods Park where I am often found) I considered buying This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, a 2020 memoir by Madhur Anand, a Canadian of Indian heritage. Eventually, I did. And it was great!
Madhur Anand’s non-fiction book is split into two in the manner of an old pulp novel, in that each (uneven) half can be read as if a standard book from the first page, with the book back to front and upside down. This structural/formal decision is reminiscent of BS Johnson’s fragmentary memoir, The Unfortunates, in that it is fully justified by the content, as the physical breach represents multiple literal and historical breaches contained within the text.
These breaches include: the Partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan (Pakistan itself would later divide further, forming Bangladesh out of ‘East Pakistan’); the breach between life in India and emigration to Canada in the 1960s; the cultural gulfs between rural life in the boreal, near-Arctic landscapes of Northern Ontario and the standard North American/Western European urban (and suburban) city (and near-city) life.
The book’s physical divide represents: the perceived gulfs between the Arts and the Sciences; the still-not-historic gulf between expectations and realities of (specifically) women’s lives; and the universal division between hopes and actualities.
This is a text about the differences between a poem and an essay, about the differences between being a tourist and an immigrant, about how it feels to casually visit a place ones parents had been desperate to escape, and about how we are never quite as observant, as wise and as driven, as we think we are.
At least, that’s how I read it.
I’ll be honest, I enjoyed the second half of this book (the part read forwards from the “cover” with a barcode on it) more than the first half, tho this was a matter of taste and the first half is perfectly fine!
The titular “red line” is the line between India and Pakistan drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, the British colonial officer who formally drew that partitioning line on a map, as the empire collapsed in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Repercussions of Radcliffe’s arbitrary (and clueless) line-drawing continue to be felt to this day (as do many many many (probably all) of those resultant from other arbitrarily-agreed colonial borders that paid no attention to the realities and practicalities of local residents’ real lives), and with fascism and intolerance rising in India at the moment, it seems that the legacy of evil left behind by the British Empire remains far from forgotten.
The narrative, in this first half, begins north of the border, with a Hindu family living in a majority-Muslim area, escaping (with the help of Muslim friends) the risk of violent discrimination with only as many possessions as they could carry, and then effectively starting life anew in a new place.
In the first half, Anand bounces between the similar experiences of two young people caught up in these events – a boy and a girl from different families, both of whom pursue education as the way to escape from the unexpected, though not extreme, poverty that Partition forced them into. As middle class families used to passive income and comfort, having to restart with nothing is humbling, but familial and class-based values (i.e. firm work ethics and genuinely impressive optimism) mean that both the boy and the girl excel at school (as their parents retrain and adapt) and enter higher education and then emigrate to Canada to become educators. These young people, once settled in Canada, start a family and name a daughter Madhur Anand: the writer of the book!
As someone who has also moved to Canada from a country with (imo) severe political problems and rampant, widening, inequality, this first half didn’t excite me as much as I’d hoped: the sections on the reality of India in the 1940s and ’50s interested me a lot more than descriptions of living in Ontario and Quebec in the 1960s and ’70s, but when the narrative and the book flip to Anand’s own memories, I was much more on board. Anand has lived the kind of globe-trotting, creativity-driven life that I can very much relate to.
Though I’m known to rail against the politics of Gen X writers, Anand doesn’t slip into the pitfalls of her generation’s bleak and self-defeating ideology of Neoliberalism (at least, not enough for me to notice and get annoyed), and in fact writes an engaging, funny, intelligent and deeply evocative fragmentary memoir of growing up as an intellectual child of immigrants.
It’s about academia and education, about being a poet while also being a scientist, about becoming a parent, about being a lover and a partner and a friend, about overcoming societal (and personal) pressures to deny the importance that literature held for her. It’s inspiring without being “#inspirational”, it’s direct without being crass, it’s honest without being rude.
I love fragmentary memoirs, and to be honest if the first half (which is all written by an omniscient third person narrator) had been cut-up into smaller sections and inserted throughout the second half, I’d probably be decrying this as one of the best books I’ve ever read, though I accept this just comes down to a matter of taste.
Anand spins the reader from her childhood to parenthood and back again, to dealing with elderly parents and then to an undergraduate fling and then to her life as a toddler: it’s a whirlwind of buffeting memories, as memorialising always is, which is why it reminded me of The Unfortunates and, of course, of my own fragmentary memoir, the pleasure of regret. (Professor Anand, if you’re reading, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org as I’d love to send you a copy!)
I thought this book was brilliant, I thought it was excellent, and I will certainly read any other works by Anand that I happen to stumble across!
Fun fun fun!